We all have those songs that are special to us, the ones that hold within them sensations, memories and emotions that become part of the listening experience. Often the act of sharing music is an intensely intimate act, letting someone scroll through your playlists or playing them that one album which you have to listen to in order, from beginning to end, these form the bedrock of connection.
Well, that’s definitely how it is for me. I love the feeling of playing someone a song and seeing their reaction, waiting and hoping that they love it, and that it will become a reminder of me. Because, as so often happens when relationships break down, shared songs become a tapestry, interweaving the stages of falling in love, and out of it. I know I use music as a safety blanket when I’ve had my heart broken, it provides me with an outlet, a way of dealing with my pain through the words of others, often those who also sound pretty in pain too.
I’m a sucker for a sad heartbreak ballad, give me some Leonard Cohen or Bon Iver past 11pm and I can weep for hours. But there is a tangible ability music holds in healing us, soothing the emptiness that a breakup can result in until one day, almost imperceptibly, that pain has lessened.
When considering songs to accompany a breakup then, I felt that it was most important to capture that sense of journey, from those first days or weeks where a good wallow and cry is exactly what’s needed, through to the euphoria of freedom, and the promise of happiness to come.
Damien Rice: ‘Cheers Darlin’
The realisation that something has come to an end is the kind of feeling which can tie your stomach up in knots, making it almost painful to eat or sleep or socialise. I find it hard to function properly with a broken heart, something I discovered during my first breakup at 16, where I would lay awake at night constantly going over situations again and again in my head. It was in these dark, 1am moments that I first really began using music to get me to sleep, to pour out my emotions until I was exhausted enough that sleep came easily. And for me there is one artist who stands above all others in producing this effect, Damien Rice.
I grew up listening to his album ‘O’, which is beloved by everyone in my family. This album by itself is capable of breaking your heart, and his lilting voice which always begins so softly, gradually builds and builds until a roaring crescendo of pain and feeling. I think ‘Cheers Darlin’ is a perfect example of this skill he has to create narratives that feel so tangible, painting a portrait of a love triangle where he remains helpless, unable to make her understand how he feels as he questions her perception of him, despite knowing he will never truly find the answer.
“You give me three cigarettes to smoke my tears away”
Gregory Porter: Water Under Bridges
Gregory Porter is an artist who I had heard very little of until I heard the, now oft-played at Bridge, ‘Liquid Spirit’ Remix. I found his voice very powerful and began listening in earnest. ‘Water Under Bridges’ was the kind of song that when it first came on, it took me aback, I was completely swept up in the simplicity of the piano and his voice, and the wrenching lyrics that softly convey the struggles of not being able to say goodbye to your memories, and holding onto the remnants of a relationship even when it is past the point of return.
“Even our worst days are better than loneliness”
Matt Maltese: Paper Thin Hotel
This next song is a combination of two of my favourite artists, with ‘Paper Thin Hotel’ being written by Leonard Cohen, but Matt Maltese’s rendition adds a fragile perspective which I find endlessly enchanting. This is a song about the moment you begin to realise that you will heal, that you can move on from heartbreak simply by accepting that love is outside of our control.
The narrative paints a painful image, with the crooning singer describing listening to his ex and their new lover have sex in the room next to him, a situation which would make anyone shiver with discomfort, but it becomes cathartic, emblematic of the growing distance between him and his past love, and this experience enables him to accept what has happened as he realises he no longer is bound to his past feelings.
“I felt so good I couldn’t feel a thing”
Mr Hudson and the Library: ‘One Specific Thing’
In general if I could recommend one underappreciated album to anyone, it would be Mr Hudson and the Library’s wonderful ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which defies all categorisation, an amalgamation of scenarios and emotions that are often as humorous as they are poignant. ‘One Specific Thing’ charts the escape of someone from a relationship, the physical need of wanting to “get out of town” is a manifestation of the stifling nature of the relationship. This song symbolises the power of knowing when to get out, when enough is enough and the only option is to leave; and far from being a cowardly act, it ignites a liberation that encourages us to know our worth, to identify when someone is only bringing us down and the power we hold in just walking away. Or in this case, driving away. In their car. Nobody’s perfect.
“It mystifies me that you’d wanna bring a young fellow down so hard”
Taylor Swift: ‘Clean’
I have had a nearly 12 year long love affair with Taylor Swift, and like any love affair it has had its ups and downs. When I was around 15 I decided that I was far too cool and mature for her and tagged along with the media-dominated image of her as someone who symbolised frivolous and sometimes tacky art. And then ‘Reputation’ stormed her straight back into the front of my life and she has been a consistent top ranker in my Spotify rewind ever since. And yes, I must admit, for a few years there I described her as a guilty pleasure, reducing her artistic merit because I felt like my music taste couldn’t be taken seriously if I said I liked Taylor Swift.
Now I realise this was a toxic, highly misogynistic viewpoint that I had picked up from things I had read online, not informed at all from my long standing appreciation for her art, or relating at all to her integrity as an artist. These days I gush endlessly about my respect and admiration for her (don’t even get me STARTED on the impact of ‘folklore’) and find myself returning to her ‘1989’ album which brought her Grammy success but whose release fell in those years when I was neglecting her.
There is one song on it which gives me shivers every time I listen to it, even more so considering her performance of it following from her victory in court against a man who sexually assaulted her. ‘Clean’ is symbolic of those first euphoric flushes of renewed resilience, when you realise you are going to get through this, that it will get better and you are a stronger and more powerful person because you have survived this pain. And now it can be wiped clean.
“Rain came pouring down when I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe”
Beyoncé: ‘Me, Myself and I’
Oh there was no way we were doing this without mentioning the Queen. Beyoncé is without a doubt in her own league in terms of creating those bad bitch vibes that never fail to make you look back at your sad heartbroken self with pity, because once a good Yoncé song comes on, all of the pain seems to just melt away and you forget, if only for the 3 or 4 minutes of the track, why you cared so much about someone who clearly didn’t deserve you anyway. I must admit I first listened to Beyoncé properly after a breakup, just after ‘Lemonade’ had been released and I played it non stop, it just made me feel so much better about myself. And that’s her power, she lifts you up and makes you feel strong and badass just through listening.
I could have chosen any number of tracks from her discography but I settled on ‘Me, Myself and I’ with its perfect level of sassiness and feel good energy. Because at the end of the day, we do survive these breakups, even when they feel like drowning and we can barely hold onto the bad memories, let alone the good ones, we will get through it, because we have to. Because we always have ourselves, and understanding your own worth and importance just means that the next time someone looks like they might break your heart, you can learn to walk away.
We are not defined by our pain, but it can shape our growth into better, more confident, more powerful individuals. And music can be a key part of that shaping process, enabling us to communicate things we never realised we were feeling, and help us realise how to move on from the heartache which is, after all, only transitory.
“After all the rain, you’ll see the sun come out again”